Content warnings: death, gore, and mildly bad language
It was late at night, and Deirdre was beginning to worry. Neither Johann nor Rustyn, who had gone to look for him, were back yet, despite the fact that it had been almost a whole day. Deirdre didn’t know exactly what was in these mountains, but it couldn’t be good. Perhaps Stolas had gotten wind of them and was out in the mountains looking for them. Maybe he had brought a legion of demons with him. Or worse, what if the Things had followed them here? Deirdre took a deep breath. Johann and Rustyn were fine. Better than her, even.
A sudden scrabbling noise of boots on rock echoed up the mountain. She leaned over the cliff and gasped because Rustyn was climbing up the rock face.
“Little help?” Rustyn shifted and almost lost his grip. “I’ve been doing this all day!”
Deirdre threw down a rope she’d had sitting beside her. Rustyn climbed up slowly, and gasped for breath as soon as he made it to the top.
Deirdre immediately began talking far too fast. “I thought you died! Where’s Johann? What about Monty and Richard? Did you see them? Are they safe? Where were you?”
Rustyn waved the questions aside. “All in good time.”
He walked over to the cave entrance and shoved aside the blanket that had been hung up as a makeshift door, Deirdre right on his heels.
Sylvia stood up from the fire they’d lit in the middle of the cave. “Rustyn!”
Wilhelm turned and gaped at him.
“Where’s Johann?” Sylvia asked.
“Safe.” Rustyn said. “I mean, I didn’t see him unsafe.”
“Not unsafe?” Deirdre asked. “Where the hell is he?”
Rustyn sucked in a breath. “Listen, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve come up with a better plan than Johann did. We’re going to go by Stolas’ tower anyway. We need to go straight to Stolas when we do, because-”
Sylvia grabbed the front of his shirt. “Tell me where Johann is.”
Wilhelm rubbed his chin. “Well, I think we should simply not go to Stolas.”
“We should,” Rustyn said, ignoring Sylvia. “He’s the only one who can help us.”
Deirdre frowned. This was odd. From what she’d seen, Rustyn would normally want to sneak around Stolas’ place, and try not to attract any attention. Perhaps being out there in the cold looking for Johann had changed his mind. Or, possibly, he had weighed all the options, and thought that this was the best course. She had never trusted this guide, and this was just more fuel for the fire. Realizing that Rustyn was speaking again, Deirdre focused back on the present.
“We should just march right in there- no one will stop us. Then we can-”
“Absolutely not,” Sylvia said. “Where’s Johann?”
“I didn’t find him tonight,” said Rustyn.
“Let’s talk about this in the morning,” Wilhelm said.
“We can’t, because Rustyn’s going to be out as soon as the sun rises looking for Johann,” said Sylvia. “Aren’t you, Rustyn?”
Rustyn shrugged. “Whatever.”
Sylvia glared at him for a moment, then let go of his shirt, turned, and stalked off.
The others seemed content with that ending, so when they all went off to their separate bed rolls, Deirdre did, too. She lay awake in her bedroll for a long time, trying to sleep but silently hating Rustyn and thinking about Richard and Monty, and how confused and alone they must be. She lay perfectly still in bed, save for her fingers, which she tapped as fast as she could against the floor. Richard and Monty, all alone. Johann, all alone. Deirdre and Sylvia and Wilhelm, stuck with a person who was by no means trustworthy.
Sitting by the fire, Rustyn was keeping watch, staring into the flames. What a normal thing to do, and yet, Deirdre was suspicious of him for it. She chewed her lip to slow her fingers down, until it bled and she had to go back to tapping. When that didn’t do anything to calm her nerves, she looked up at the fire, watching Rustyn stare into the flames. Deirdre studied the dancing blaze, seeing the way the flames devoured any wood offered to them, leaping up eagerly, tasting the air like a snake. Then, she turned her attention to the demon in front of the fire.
She didn’t trust him. That was plain and simple. He was a snake, a slippery monster that was deceiving them somehow, and so well that no one else noticed it, and Deirdre herself wasn’t even able to put her finger on it.
Maybe that meant there wasn’t anything untrustworthy about him. Maybe Deirdre needed to calm down and the only reason she distrusted him was bad experiences in the past. Her father had always called her biased when she was nervous about something because of that.
There was a commotion outside the cave, and Deirdre started. She flipped over very slowly to see what it was, and discovered… an owl, sitting on a rock right outside the cave.
Deirdre didn’t know much about the demonic, but she knew owls were associated with Stolas. That did it for her. She had to get out of here. Luckily, Deirdre was something of an expert at escaping watchful eyes in bad situations.
She stood up and went over to Rustyn. “Do you think you could pretend to be asleep?”
Rustyn gave her a disgusted look. “Why?”
“It would make me quite a bit more comfortable.”
Rustyn scoffed, but stood up and went over to lay on the ground facing the wall. Deirdre pretended to go back to her bedroll and fall asleep, but about thirty minutes after she’d gotten up, she got up again and went to tap Sylvia’s shoulder.
“What?” Sylvia asked. Apparently she hadn’t been sleeping either.
“We’re leaving,” said Deirdre. “Do not talk above a whisper.”
Sylvia shrugged. “How are we gonna escape hellboy, here?”
“Get Wilhelm up.”
Sylvia crawled out of her bed and over to where Wilhelm was passed out asleep. He wasn’t too hard to wake up. She motioned to the door, and Wilhelm followed her in a crouch-run to the door of the cave. Now Deirdre was the only one left.
“I heard them leave,” Rustyn said. “Where did they go?”
“They went to piss outside.”
Deirdre drew the dull, blunt knife from the floor of the mill. She picked up a smooth, heavy rock from the floor of the cave and stood poised over Rustyn’s head for but a moment before bringing the knife down hard on his temple.
He screamed, of course, but Deirdre hammered the knife in with the rock, and his screaming soon stopped.
There was gore everywhere, too, but Deirdre wasn’t coming back to the cave. She pried the knife out of Rustyn’s temple, stood up calmly, and walked out of the cave. When you were in a bad situation, you did what you had to to survive, and that was that, and you waited until afterwards to feel bad about it.
“Where is he?” Sylvia asked. “Rustyn, I mean.”
“Dead,” said Deirdre. Her tone invited no questions. “I think we should head to Wolf Icefall to look for Johann. That’s probably where he went.”
“We need the map,” Sylvia said.
“No, I can get it.”
Sylvia went back in to get the map, then came back out and handed it to her. “Holy hell, Deirdre.”
Deirdre shrugged. “Wolf Icefall is here. Let’s go, everyone.”
They walked in silence until Deirdre couldn’t bear it any more. “Wilhelm, would you play us something on your pipe?” She sort of regretted singing in that cave. It was like giving a piece of her soul away.
Wilhelm began to play softly. Somehow, he managed to ask, “When were you born, Deirdre?”
“I was born in the year 0.”
“I’m younger than both of you,” said Sylvia. “I can’t believe this.”
“You’re older than Johann,” Deirdre said.
They soon came upon Wolf Icefall. To get into it, it was a lovely choice between a frightening slope of molten rock and jagged obsidian, or a sheer rock wall that would have been death to fall from.
Deirdre pointed to the rock wall. “We’re going down that.”
Sylvia shrugged. “Doesn’t seem too terrible hard.”
She led the way over, and was the first one to start the treacherous climb down. Wilhelm was next, and Deirdre last. She wasn’t afraid of heights, though the climb, with the jagged rock walls pressing in on her, was more than a little triggering of her claustrophobia. She closed her eyes, which might not have been the best idea, but it was the one she chose, and eased herself down the rock wall. It was just one foot over another, one handhold at a time, slowly but surely, until she was at the bottom and the danger was past.
Sylvia pointed to a rock ledge. “Behold, a man!” She began laughing hysterically.
“I’ve no idea why that’s funny,” Deirdre said.
“It’s actually a quote from ancient Greek philosophy. Diogenes. You see-”
“Not now,” said Deirdre. “Is Johann under there?”
“Oh. Yes, he is.”
“Someone go and get him. Please.”
Wilhelm crawled under the ledge and dragged the sleeping Johann out.
“How is he still asleep?” Sylvia asked.
“I don’t know. Someone has to carry him, though.”
“I wish Monty were here,” said Sylvia. “He could do it.”
Wilhelm put his hands under Johann’s arms and lifted his upper body up. “I can drag him along like this.”
“Sylvia, get his feet,” said Deirdre.
Sylvia grabbed his feet, and they awkwardly carried Johann up the steep part of the icefall. Really, it should have been called a rockfall, and Deirdre didn’t know why it had the word ‘wolf’ in it, either. The name was entirely inappropriate.
That had her thinking about names. People had the same first names a lot of the time, so they were often told apart by their last names. What was her last name? Deirdre strained herself to remember. Surely she’d had one, she just couldn’t remember what it was. For the longest time, she’d just been Deirdre. Had she ever had a last name? Surely. But she’d already come to that conclusion. She would have had a last name, and she would have shared it with her father and mother. Her father’s face was a blurry silhouette in her mind, and she didn’t remember what he’d sounded like, or his name. She only remembered his actions, and one extremely clear scene from her early childhood, when she had found him butchering a rabbit and asked why he was leaving the foot attached. That was because a dead and skinned cat was indistinguishable from a rabbit until you’d already bought it, so a foot was left on to identify it as a rabbit.
Apart from that memory, where the smell of blood and metal and rabbit flooded her senses too much to think of her father, Deirdre hardly remembered anything about what he had actually been like. That had faded, and only memories of what he had done remained.
“What the Hell?” Sylvia asked.
Deirdre looked up. They had crested the steep part of the icefall, and could see the further land spread out beneath them. A perfectly flat road cut through the mountains, and seemed to lead off forever in either direction. There was a wagon rumbling down the road, they could see it in the distance.
“Well?” Wilhelm asked.
“That’s not a well, it’s a road,” said Sylvia.
“We’ll see if we can hitch a ride on that cart,” Deirdre said.
They made their way down to the road. Deirdre hailed the cart, and the driver, a nasty-looking old man, stopped.
“Where are you going?” Deirdre asked.
“Eligos’ stronghold,” said the man. “You might know him as Duke Janson.”
“Can we ride with you?”
Wilhelm and Sylvia hefted Johann up into the cart and climbed in. Deirdre was the last in before the old man started the cart again.
The wagon was rickety, the horses were old, and the driver seemed to hate all his passengers. Deirdre closed her eyes to sleep, or something like that, but was snapped out of her reverie almost immediately by the driver.
“Damn picking horse, won’t go any faster,” he said. “Won’t go any faster. Hauling too much of a picking load. Picking human. Making my picking horse go slower because of their picking plans at Eligos’ picking stronghold.”
“We can hear you, you know,” said Sylvia.
“Shut your picking mouth, little picking girl!”
Wilhelm was obviously confused. “He does realize he isn’t hauling anything you pick, right?”
This was true. They were squashed uncomfortably between sacks of potatoes, not berries or fruit.
“I know I’m not hauling picking pickable things, picking devil boy!”
“So are you swearing at us, or what?” Sylvia asked.
“I thought I told you to shut your picking mouth, picking girl!”
Sylvia looked a little insulted.
“You know the old man will just call you picking again,” Deirdre said.
“Which may or may not mean the same thing as the you-know-what-word,” said Wilhelm.
“Picking road,” the driver said as the wagon rumbled over a pothole. “It’s those picking workers. Spend too much time in the picking bar instead of fixing the picking road.”
A bird squawked off to the side of the road, startling Deirdre.
“Goddamn picking bird!”
This was going to be a long ride.